Rethinking the Supreme Court’s Impact on Federalism and Centralization


This article examines the U.S. Supreme Court’s impact on centralizing and decentralizing power in the American federal system. Through an original database of nearly 700 landmark constitutional decisions, we show that the Court has contributed to the centralization of political power, defined in the traditional sense of expanding federal government authority relative to that of states and localities. But it has also promoted decentralization by protecting individual rights against state and local governments. The impact of the Court also tends much more toward decentralization if we classify decisions upholding federal laws against challenge, as neutral, rather than centralizing. These two crucial methodological points have been largely neglected in previous analyses of the Court’s impact on federalism and centralization. There are, in many situations, good reasons to adopt them. We also present multiple models for understanding how the Court affects federalism.

Our analysis calls into question the traditional picture of the Court as a consistent force for centralization. It also raises serious questions about the conventional wisdom on the impact of the Court on centralization during specific periods in American history.